Book review: American Kingpin

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind behind the Silk Road Drugs Empire by Nick Bilton.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

You like to read about drugs? And the internet? Murder-for-hire? Inter-agency squabblings?

You’re probably not all that interested in the last of these, but they provide a lot of the forward thrust of Nick Bilton’s American Kingpin, a book about the rise – and eventual downfall – of the man behind The Silk Road, an online emporium that taunted law enforcement for years.

The journey of Ross Ulbricht from libertarian-leaning programmer with a lax grip on personal hygiene to paranoid billionaire cybercriminal Dread Pirate Roberts (yes, that one) is an arc so ridiculous that it feels made up. But what we’re dealing with here is truth: Bilton has dug through endless transcripts and files and presented the story of Ulbricht’s transformation and eventual capture in a pleasing way. It’s not necessarily the most rigorous piece of journalism I’ve read, but it moves at such a clip that transgressions won’t linger long.

This isn’t the first thing I’ve read about the story of the Silk Road. I first had my interest piqued by this Wired article (part two is here) by Joshuah Berman, and this book covers the same points, only in more expansive detail. There’s a lot more backstory provided for the agents of the various legal entities vying for the case, which is helpful, as the story of agencies working with and against each other is just as interesting a part of the story as, y’know, the whole drugs-and-guns angle.

Bilton’s writing is well researched, though it does seem pretty laboured. I did sometimes find myself missing the woods for the trees because of the attention his text draws to itself. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that it sometimes works way too hard to set up gotcha moments, or to give a sense of increased action. This is a little weird, as the story already contains a fair whack of action, and plenty of those AHA! instances. The truth doesn’t need much gussying up – it just needs to be put down as it happened, whereas here the finessing is often a little too visible.

Still, the real-life story is what I read this book for, not the authorial tweaking. And on that count, it’s an excellently popcorn book. It contains nerds, drugs, the Internet, murder and paranoia, as well as all the trappings of a virtual and real-life manhunt.

American Kingpin is probably not the be-all and end-all version of the Silk Road story – at the time of writing this review, there are rumblings that Ulbricht may be given a presidential pardon before Trump’s term is out – but it’ll do until a more conclusive work comes along. As it stands, Bilton has provided a decent record of what happens when libertarian dorks decide to push their theories into reality.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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